Terminator, The (United States, 1984)

May 03, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Terminator, The Poster

The Terminator, the film that catapulted Arnold Schwarzengger into Hollywood's stratosphere, was never designed for more than a niche audience. Indeed, while the film made a nice profit for Orion Pictures (returning grosses about six times its cost), it did not make the kind of money that would cause it to be labeled a "blockbuster" or that would justify a sequel. But The Terminator arrived at a time when America's appetite for science fiction was escalating and when the home video revolution was taking off. Although only a minor success in theaters, The Terminator was a gargantuan hit on home video. And, when James Cameron solidified his reputation by directing Aliens, it became unthinkable that there would not be a sequel to The Terminator.

The movie's strength is that, like The Matrix, it combines action with ideas. This isn't a run-of-the-mill turn-off-the-brain collection of chases and fight scenes. The plot, which involves time travel and the paradoxes inherent therein, requires viewers to pay attention or risk having no idea what's happening. I remember leaving the theater 25 years ago and hearing a girl remark: "I liked it but I didn't understand what was going on. Was that guy from the future Arnold's father?" Cameron, as it turns out, took a little too much license in claiming full credit for the story. Noted science fiction author Harlan Ellison sued, arguing that The Terminator bore more than a passing resemblance to two of his Outer Limits teleplays, "Soldier" (about two time-traveling soldiers who end up in 1964, where they fight to the death) and "Demon with a Glass Hand" (about a time-traveling robot that looks like a man). The settlement resulted in Ellison gaining an on-tape credit as well as an undisclosed amount of money.

It is 1984. The stillness of the night is interrupted as a portal in time opens. Through that portal arrives The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a ruthless killer from the year 2029. Future Earth is at war: man against machines. The Terminator's mission is to eliminate the leader of the humans before his birth. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the eventual mother of John Connor, has been targeted for termination. But The Terminator is not the only one to make use of a time portal. Also sent through is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), John Connor's right-hand-man. His goal: protect Sarah.

The Terminator is structured as one long chase, with the vulnerable Sarah and Reese fleeing from the relentless Terminator. At first, Sarah distrusts Reese, believing him to be demented. But, once The Terminator has destroyed a police station and killed most of the cops within, she has no choice but to trust Reese. That bond develops into a romance, but The Terminator's pursuit allows little opportunity for down time or sweet nothings. Nevertheless, Cameron has a knack for getting us to care about the characters and their relationship even though not a lot of time is spent getting to know them. (There are actually more "character building" sequences in the more heavily action-oriented Terminator 2.)

Key special effects, which were cutting edge in 1984, appear dated by today's standards. Stan Winston's stop-animation Terminator, which takes over for Schwarzenegger at the end, looks like what it is: the product of a special effects lab. It's not credible, but the story is strong enough to overcome such shortcomings. In fact, some of the other visual chicanery - time travel effects, Schwarzenegger's makeup, and flash-forward scenes set in a post-apocalyptic 2029 - are effective. By the time Terminator 2 arrived, Cameron had both the budget and the ability to better integrate the robot Terminator into its surroundings. The herky-jerky awkwardness that marks the climax of the first movie is not evident during the sequels.

Paradoxes inevitably form the entertainment core for any time travel story, and The Terminator is no exception. (SPOILER AHEAD!) In this case, the supposition is that a person can die before he is born as long as his personal time line is unbroken. Thus, Reese comes into the world at a time after the events chronicled in The Terminator, then travels back to a date before his birth, fathers the son who will send him back, and is "terminated" before he is born. This is not a complex time travel concept (requiring only an understanding of time as fluid), and it's more straightforward than the one addressed in Terminator 2.

In the casting department, few character/actor pairings have been better fits than Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. In 1984, the former Mr. Olympia boasted limited feature acting experience (primarily from two Conan movies) but provided what Cameron wanted from The Terminator: an imposing physique and an implacable countenance. Schwarzenegger had both, and his Achilles heel - the occasional inability to deliver dialogue convincingly - was not an impediment. The role demanded only the occasional one-liner (one of which, "I'll be back," became the actor's trademark). Cameron transformed every one of Schwarzenegger's perceived negatives into strengths and, in the process, re-defined him in Hollywood's eyes. In the wake of The Terminator, Schwarzenegger was in demand.

The film's other two leads, Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton, share some acting characteristics - neither has tremendous range but both are charismatic, physically adept, and provide the requisite intensity. Biehn was a Cameron "regular" early in his career, then moved fully into B movies, an arena where he continues to thrive. Genre fans remember him best as Hicks, Sigourney Weaver's semi-love interest from Aliens. Linda Hamilton was virtually unknown at the time of her casting. In years to come, she would reprise this role (in a considerably buffed up form), marry and divorce James Cameron (she was his fourth wife), and become a beloved cult figure for her part in the TV series Beauty and the Beast.

The potential evidenced by Cameron in The Terminator - the ability to sustain suspense, meld action with story, and provide compelling characters despite the limitations of the actors portraying them - would be fully realized in two future features, Aliens and Terminator 2. This movie, however, is in some ways more impressive than either of those because of what the filmmaker was capable of achieving with a limited budget and without significant studio backing. The themes and ideas presented in The Terminator hold up well today, even though we have moved into the post-Cold War era and only the most nihilistic individuals could see 2029 in such bleak terms. It's a rousing science fiction story that proves an on-screen adrenaline rush need not short-circuit the brain.

Terminator, The (United States, 1984)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1984-10-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1